Immersion journalism or immersionism is a style of journalism similar to gonzo journalism. In the style, journalists immerse themselves in a situation and with the people involved. The final product tends to focus on the experience, not the writer.
Like Gonzo, immersionism details an individual's experiences from a deeply personal perspective. An individual will choose a situation, and immerse themselves in the events and people involved. Unlike Gonzo, however, it is less focused on the writer's life, and more about the writer's specific experiences. Proponents of immersion journalism claim this research strategy allows authors to describe the internal experience of external events and break away from the limiting pseudo-objectivity of traditional journalism.
Book-length examples of immersion journalism include H.G. Bissinger's Friday Night Lights; John Howard Griffin's Black Like Me; Ted Conover's Rolling Nowhere, Coyotes and Newjack: Guarding Sing Sing; Barbara Ehrenreich's Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America (2001), Bait and Switch: The (Futile) Pursuit of the American Dream; (2005), A.J. Jacobs The Year of Living Biblically (2007) and Matthew Thompson's Running with the Blood God (2013) and My Colombian Death (2008). VICE Films champions an immersionist style of reporting, and Vice Magazine published several issues on the topic.
Elizabeth Jane Cochrane
Elizabeth Jane Cochrane, known by her pseudonym Nellie Bly is seen as a "pioneer" of immersion journalism. Cochrane made herself the center of the story when she was admitted to a mental asylum undercover to expose the abuse of female inmates at the Women's Lunatic Asylum on Blackwell's Island. The series, "Ten Days in a Mad-House", was published in New York World in 1887. The legitimacy of her tactics as a form of credible journalism has been questioned, as she placed in Time's "Top 10 Literary Stunts" which describes journalists who have "elevated the literary gimmick" of immersing themselves in atypical scenarios.
Jon Franklin earned a Pulitzer Prize for an article he wrote for the Evening Sun in 1979. Franklin followed a woman through her brain surgery. Unexpectedly, the woman died, and he instead focused his piece on the surgeon, Dr. Ducker. The article includes the details of the doctor's emotionally draining career and the suspense of Mrs. Kelly's operation.
Immersion journalism has been criticized for being too subjective and partial to the journalist's opinion. By immersing oneself in the subject for extended periods of time, the credibility of the writer's neutrality weakens. A Washington Post seven-part article which followed Vice President Quayle went under fire for its lack of neutrality. Washington City Paper editor Jack Shafter said the reporters "got way, way too close. With this kind of immersion journalism, you lose perspective, you lose sight of the goal, and you become this authorized biographer."
Robin Hemley's book A Field Guide for Immersion Writing: Memoir, Journalism, and Travel describes David Shield's book Black Planet which observed white fans' "fascination" with black basketball players. Shield "exaggerated and conflated a few things" but was not untruthful. Hemley says that he received scathing reviews, which was a hidden success, since it proved that Shields "hit a nerve."
Practicality also becomes a central issue opposing immersion journalism. A complete work of immersion journalism have flexible deadlines, which not all news sources can afford. The New York Times writer Jesse McKinley spent a month working alongside actors to "expose the daily torment that is life way-way off Broadway." Anne Hull of the St. Petersburg Times worked six months following the lives of a Tampa police officer and the teen who attacked her. However, many news sources value quick stories at a rapid pace to increase profits, according to the Columbia Journalism Review.
- Hemley, R. (2012). A Field Guide for Immersion Writing: Memoir, Journalism, and Travel. Athens: University of Georgia Press.
- Staff, TIME (12 April 2009). "Top 10 Literary Stunts" – via content.time.com.
- Franklin, Jon (12 December 1978). "Terrifying journey through tunnels of the brain: Tales from the gray frontier". Evening Sun. PDF The article is also known as Mrs. Kelly's Monster.
- Weinberg, S. (1998). "Tell It Long Take Your Time Go In Depth." Columbia Journalism Review, 36(5), 56–61.
- Kurtz, H. (1992, Jan 15). "The beef over quayle." The Washington Post (1974-Current File). Retrieved from http://search.proquest.com/docview/140642080
- McKinley, J. (2003, Aug 15). "The actor's life for me, fringewise." New York Times (1923-Current File). Retrieved from http://search.proquest.com/docview/92624159